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There’s a new trend in the Nutmeg State among beer drinkers: a move away from those watered-down national brand beers to fuller, more delicious, and satisfying ales, lagers, and stouts produced by local brewpubs and production breweries.
The tasteful brews are called craft beers, and while the scene is relatively new to Connecticut, states like Colorado, Washington, and Vermont have enjoyed entrepreneurial craft-beer making for the past 20 years or so.
The Brewers Association officially defines an American craft brewery, in simplest terms, as an independentlyowned small producer that limits its beer production to fewer than six million barrels per year.
The giant corporations like Anheuser- Busch, MillerCoors, and Boston Beer/ Sam Adams still hold sway in the industry and their products provide for 90 percent of all beer sales in the United States. Craft-beer sales are growing, however, according to Brewers Association statistics, and accounted for 10.2 percent of all domestic beer sales dollars in 2012. In a $100-billion annual beer industry, sales of craft brews in 2012 were up from nine percent over 2011.
Craft-beer making first began in Connecticut at a brewpub called New England Brewery, according to Bill da Silva, co-founder of Southport Brewing Company, a.k.a. SBC Restaurant & Brewery in Branford.
“They were the fi rst, but they’re closed now, which is surprising, since they won a gold medal for their beer,” da Silva says. SBC produced its fi rst batch of craft beer in 1997, which makes it the oldest family-owned brewpub in Connecticut, according to da Silva.
It was on a vacation to Breckenridge, Colorado, that the da Silva brothers learned about Breckenridge Brewery.
“They brewed their own beers for local restaurant patrons,” Bill da Silva says. “That was 17 years ago, and we thought it was very cool. No one was doing this back in Connecticut, and we said, ‘We want to do this here.’”
After 16 years of pleasing restaurant patrons with their own craft beers, a year ago—-thanks to a change in state laws that allows brewpubs to sell their beers outside of their own restaurants——SBC began bottling and selling its four beer brands to liquor stores and beer bars in New Haven, Hartford, and Fairfi eld counties.
Other local craft-beer breweries have grown out of what often begins as a homebrewing hobby and morphs into a serious business. It’s a trend that’s spreading across the country.
“There are currently some 2,700 breweries across the nation,” states Christian Amport, Madison native and founder of upstart Overshores Brewing Company located in East Haven.
“As of late 1970s there were less than 100 [small] breweries, and home brewing didn’t rebound until President Carter re-legalized home brewing,” Amport says. “Home brewing then picked up in the late 1980s, with pioneers like Sierra Nevada, and a big resurgence occurred in the 1990s, but a lot of those breweries didn’t make it. Then a new resurgence began at the new millennium.”
Amport, whose company is backed by 30 private equity investors, will have his fi rst Belgian ale available commercially in October 2013. Like others before him, Amport turned his own home-brewing passion—-as inspired by his three years’ living in Vermont amid a culture steeped in local craft brewing—-into his own craft-beer business.
“Since I graduated from college craft beer has exploded in Connecticut,” Amport says. “Consumers here want it; it’s a snowball effect. Now restaurants have fi ve-course menus with beer parings via chefs. Retailers say over and over again people are excited about craft beer and go nuts over local beer.”
With so many breweries coming into an already-crowded fi eld, Amport contends, “You don’t have to distribute nationally to succeed. The United States has 2,700 breweries versus 7,000 wineries. It’s very easy to make money in the alcohol business because the production cost is so low versus the prices consumers pay.”
Justin Gargano and Mike Fawcett, cofounders of Thimble Island Brewing Company, along with partner Sebastian Rossi, turned their home-brewing passion into a full-time career.
“We’re all I.T. nerds and we took home brewing seriously,” Gargano says with a laugh.
Thimble Island launched its flagship American Ale a year ago and now the company supplies it to 25 area bars and restaurants.
"We've pushed hard and we've all left our full-time I.T. jobs,” Gargano says.
“Craft beer is better fresh,” Rossi adds. “You want to drink it two to four weeks from when it’s created, so we distributed locally.”
To play into the local theme, Stony Creek Brewery in Branford produces its fl agship 203 and 860 brands of craft beer. Managing Director Manny Rodriguez says that, after the company was founded in November 2010 and a site was selected to set up the production facility, “We discovered there were contaminants in the ground.”
Determined to bring Stony Creek’s ale and lager recipes to market, Rodriguez turned to Curt Cameron at Thomas Hooker Brewery in Bloomfield for help.
“Curt told us to come on up,” Rodriguez says. The result: Stony Creek’s beers are produced using Hooker’s brewing equipment.
“We work together quite well,” Rodriguez says, adding that this level of cooperation and support exists throughout the craft-brewing industry.
Thomas Hooker Brewing Company itself began life as a small brewpub operating under the name Trout Brook Brewing Pub. It, too, made beer for its own patrons, but business eventually turned sour. That’s when Cameron stepped in to purchase what remained of the pub in 2006.
“Trout Brook had four [brewing] tanks and barely two employees,” Cameron recalls, adding, “Today, we have 21 tanks, 24 employees, a new facility, and we offer seven ales and four lagers.”
Hooker was recently named as the 73rd best brewer in the world by RateBeer.com, and the company is ranked number 15 in the list of the top “50 American Micro Breweries” by BeerAdvocate magazine.
“The craft-beer industry has been growing at double digits for the last six to seven years, and Connecticut has lagged behind,” Cameron says, “but it’s catching up quickly now.”
The fact that there are now almost two dozen established production breweries in Connecticut, with nine more scheduled to begin selling their own beer products commercially, is testimony to the growing popularity of craft beer.
“Consumers are looking for local and fresh beers and not the products from the mass conglomerates,” Cameron says.
“It will be interesting to see if the trend continues,” notes Chris Hancock, sales clerk and beer enthusiast at Franco’s Discount Wine & Liquor Outlet in Madison, who is always ready to speak eloquently about the history of beer and beer making.
Hancock, too, is inspired by the increase in local craft-beer production and he fi nds it a challenge to keep up with consumer demand.
“We don’t always learn about local craft beers from the established distributors,” Hancock says, admitting he often depends on the new breweries to approach him directly. “We’d like to know who’s out there with new products.”
Hancock also wonders which craft beer labels will survive. That’s a sentiment that da Silva echoes.
“There are so many micro breweries producing so many different beers—-some with 30 choices——I expect a shakeout at some point, but our guests keep asking us, ‘What’s new,’ so the demand is there,” says da Silva.
Beer aficionados seem to agree. The drinking of craft beer is about savoring fl avors and complementing fine foods.
“Craft [appeals] to the thinking man’s sensibility; it’s not [consumed] to get you hammered,” Amport says, and contends that not everyone is onboard the trend.
“There are those who will never drink craft beer; they will stick to their commercial light beers—the mass market stuff—so that market will always be there,” Amport says. “But craftbeer is a different culture, and it’s growing.
“It will be interesting see if the craft-beer movement lasts in Connecticut,” Hancock says. “I hope it does.”